Call someone a “Chinaman” these days and you’d better be ready for a fight — most likely verbally, and quite possibly physically.
But playwright Jason Ma says there was a time that term carried less cultural baggage.
In the playbill for the Utah performances of his new musical, “Gold Mountain,” Ma notes that the three Chinese characters used to denote a person from China are literally “middle” “kingdom” and “man” — or, “China man.”
Today, that term has become a pejorative slur. But in 1866, according to Ma, it was a badge of honor for the thousands of men working to build America’s first transcontinental railroad.
“These men had succeeded and thrived in a situation that others found unbearable,” Ma writes. “These men knew that they were the engine that drove the Central Pacific Railroad. Without them, it wouldn’t get done.”
Ma concludes his playbill remarks with, “So, let us take a journey back in time. A time when ‘Chinaman’ didn’t invoke shame and hatred, but pride, achievement and resilience.”
Against that backdrop, “Gold Mountain” takes place in a Chinese work camp in the Sierra Nevada during the fall of 1866. Kassi Bybee, producer of Ogden Musical Theatre, said the play tells the tale of a young boy hired to be a fire-runner — the extremely dangerous job of lighting the fuses to ignite explosives used to tunnel through rock.
“This, through music, is the beautiful story about the Chinese railroad workers and the sacrifices they made,” Bybee said. “But it’s also tied into a beautiful love story.”
In conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad just 50 miles northwest of Ogden, Ma’s musical is getting a staged reading May 8-11 in Salt Lake City and Ogden. Sold-out performances were scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City; Ogden’s performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday at Peery’s Egyptian Theater, 2415 Washington Blvd.
Tickets are $15-$20.
“Gold Mountain” is directed by Alan Muraoka. Billy Bustamante choreographed the show, with music direction by Kristen Lee Rosenfeld. The Utah performances were produced in partnership with Ogden Musical Theatre, the Spike 150 organization, and the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association.
The musical will be offered “concert-style,” with actors standing in front of scenery but behind music stands, according to Bybee. She said there are 13 actors in the show — all Asians, with one female — and all are equity actors with ties to Broadway.
The lone female, Ali Ewoldt, recently finished a 2 1/2-year run as the first Asian American to play Christine in “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway.
Bybee said “Gold Mountain” is an important story to tell during the sesquicentennial celebration, because people often forget the significant role the Chinese played in building the railroad.
“We’re so white-centric, and really, there were so many more people involved in building the railroad,” she said. “People from different ethnic backgrounds, and they need to be remembered, too.”
Before the Chinese workers were brought in, there was a constant turnover among the workers, “because they weren’t able to endure the arduous work,” Bybee said. Basically, the builders of the railroad had exhausted their labor pool. And although the Chinese were said to be too small and ill-suited for the back-breaking work, the Central Pacific Railroad took a chance on them by bringing in a small group.
It paid off spectacularly for the CPRR. The Chinese became the majority of the labor force that built the Central Pacific portion of the transcontinental railroad.
“They did the work that others couldn’t,” Bybee said.
But in any event, she said, “Without them, the transcontinental railroad wouldn’t have been possible.”
Sometimes, art can romanticize a difficult period in history. But Bybee said she doesn’t think this musical and its love story sugarcoats that history.
“I feel it addresses the reality,” she said. “This will depict in a beautiful way some of the pain, heartache, agony and sacrifice — but also the joy that was experienced — at a difficult time among those who literally brought the transcontinental railroad to fruition.”
In emailed remarks, Ma said its meaningful for “Gold Mountain” to be included in the Spike 150 events.
“We are commemorating this huge, amazing feat, and the chance to tell this story and shine a light on the thousands of Chinese men who labored at this incredibly arduous and dangerous work is a privilege,” Ma said. “We’ve brought some of the best Broadway actors I know to literally sing these unsung heroes and honor our shared history.”
Co-executive producer Max Chang said that when he first read the script and listened to the music, he was moved by the “beauty and poetry,” adding that “for a moment I felt like what it might have been like to be in the Chinese railroad workers’ shoes 150 years ago.”
“The contribution of the nameless and faceless Chinese railroad worker has largely been forgotten and untold,” Chang said via email. “Gold Mountain seamlessly weaves their story while giving them back the dignity of their names and faces.”
Bybee said she’s excited for Ogden Musical Theatre to be a part of the transcontinental railroad’s 150th celebration.
“Our community here in Ogden, we are the railroad town,” she said. “Salt Lake is Salt Lake, but Ogden was the hub — Ogden is the hub.”